U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Media and the Black Public Sphere of the Civil Rights/Black Power Era

For the last few weeks, I’ve devoted my blog space to reflecting on ways in which African Americans in the late 1960s used memory of the Reconstruction era to ask questions about the “Second Reconstruction” of the late 1960s. I zeroed in on Lerone Bennett, historian and editor of Ebony magazine, due to the prominence of his essays in what is best thought of as a Black Public Sphere. While I’m quite fond of studying African American print culture, I also recognize that when it comes to the 20th century, there are plenty of other rich media forms that need to be included in any conception of the public sphere. Today I’d like to mention a few books on these media forms, and on the Black Public Sphere idea, that I think would be of interest to the readers of the S-USIH blog.

The Black Public Sphere, a wonderful collection of essays released by The Black Public Sphere Collective in 1995, gets at the heart of what the phrase “Black Public Sphere” means. The essays were derived from several sources: two conferences on the Black Public Sphere in 1993, and a special issue of the journal Public Culture. Containing essays by Houston Baker, Michael Dawson, and Paul Gilroy among others, the edited collection allows readers to get a nuanced interpretation of the Black Public Sphere. Anyone interested in memory and the African American community, I’d argue, would also find this book intriguing. And the cover is in itself an intriguing meditation on the Black Public Sphere. It’s a picture of Nelson Mandela at Yankee Stadium during his 1990 tour, a moment that deserves greater scrutiny as part debates among African Americans about the post-Civil Rights era and the Reagan-Bush years.

Going back to what I said earlier, media in the latter half of the 20th century encompasses several forms: print, television, radio (which is crucially important to the Black Public Sphere, and I’ll get to that later), and the internet. Books such as Black Power TV by Devorah Heitner, for instance, show the intersection of Black Power and television in the late 1960s. Heitner’s narrative showcases the ways in which local television in major cities such as New York and Chicago began to include more diverse array of voices in response to demands made by African Americans in the 1960s. Black Power TV  should be cause to ask bigger questions about media and race in the 1960s and 1970s. The book also reminds us that these questions of media representation may have been asked (and answered) differently city by city, state by state. Revolution Televised by Christine Acham also asks similar questions of race and media representation, albeit on a national scale.

Of course, the Civil Rights Movement itself is often seen as a moment symbolizing the ascendancy of television as a driver and shaper of national discourse. The Race Beat, a book on newspaper coverage of the Civil Rights Movement, also argues that television news in the 1960s came of age due to exhilarating coverage of protests in the South, especially the tense and dramatic moments in Birmingham in 1963 and the Edmund Pettis Bridge in 1965. Another book that delves into television and the Civil Rights era is Aniko Bodroghkozy’s Equal Time: Television and the Civil Rights Movement. While her book does an excellent job detailing media coverage of the movement, she also makes a great contribution in examining popular television shows and their role in shaping debates about race. For example, she reminds readers of the short-lived, but well ahead of its time, television show East Side, West Side, which starred George C. Scott and Cicely Tyson.

Finally, a word on radio. One of the stories waiting to be told about the 1970s and 1980s has to be the continued impact of African American radio personalities. I’ve already become convinced that my dissertation (which, in this preliminary stage, is going to be an examination of intellectuals and race after 1965 using a civil sphere framework) will include a section on radio and the African American community. Speaking to a professor last week, we were both convinced that understanding Black radio personalities was key to getting to know more about how African Americans themselves viewed current events. I think of figures today such as Tom Joyner and Roland Martin (just thinking in regards to a national stage) who have a large following within the Black community. While I don’t want to start debates on who is and isn’t a public intellectual, or what precisely constitutes intellectual history, I do think that radio personalities offer us a chance to delve deeper into concepts of the public sphere in the second half of the 20th century. Understanding how people get their news and entertainment on a daily basis has, I think, great bearing on how they also understand larger cultural and intellectual debates.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks Robert. A couple of brief questions: have you read or have any of the authors above commented on Christian Davenport’s Media Bias, Perspective, and State Repression: The Black Panther Party (Cambridge University Press, 2010)? Also, I’m curious if Todd Gitlin’s argument in The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left (University of California Press, 2nd ed., 2003) is seen as relevant to the trajectory of the Black Power movement or Black Radicalism generally.

    • These are some good questions. First, I haven’t gotten to Davenport yet, but that book’s on my list. There’s also Jane Rhodes “Framing the Black Panthers” as well, which offers a good look at how the media portrayed the Panthers in the late 1960s.

      As for Gitlin’s work, I think it’s definitely relevant. It also depends on what question you’re asking: in regards to the New Left and its relationship to Black Power, Gitlin definitely works. But in regards to Black Panthers, Black Power, and Black-owned media sources (Ebony/Jet/Black newspapers), that may be a different story.

  2. Robert,
    It is really exciting to watch your ideas for your dissertation take shape, and also to get your reflections on them as they progress.

    You’ve already got such a rich and varied mixture of mediums that I hesitate to ask about what could be another, but I am wondering if you’re at all interested in the contributions of popular music and stand-up comedy (both released on records and performed live) to a notion of the Black Public Sphere?

    • That’s…not a bad idea at all. It’s something I hadn’t considered, but now that you mention it, I should start looking in that direction.

      This is why I enjoy writing for this blog, by the way. I’d probably never have considered that until now! I know there are a handful of books out about Black stand up….at some point I’ll take a look at those.

      Ultimately, I’m starting to think what my project is going to revolve around is not only intellectuals (regardless of their race–it’s more about what they say/write about race in America) but public figures who make statements that can definitely be interpreted as political.

  3. Great post, Robert. I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts on black intellectual history.

    I wonder if your work considers magazines like Ebony in relationship to earlier publications such as The Crisis, Opportunity, etc.? It seems to me that your approach to reading these magazines as intellectual history is right on; having worked on The Crisis most specifically these magazines are wonderful archives, still largely untapped, for analyzing the history of ideas. On a related note, I also wonder if you’ve considered looking at the rise of juvenile black biography in the post-WW2 period as an index for fleshing out the context of black intellectual history? (Here I’m thinking of Julia Mickenberg’s great work on radical children’s literature.)

    • At some point, I’ll go back to those earlier magazines. It’s really important to understand those for what they say about the formation of a Black Public (And Civil) Sphere later in the centruy.

      As for the black biographies….I hadn’t thought about that, but that would be an excellent way to get at some important questions about how African American see race and questions around race….thanks for the suggestion. And, as always, thanks for the kind thoughts.

  4. Robert: Like Andrew said above, it’s fun and interesting to watch your ideas unfold here.

    Question: When you say radio, are you thinking just AM-style talk radio? Is that the medium today for Joyner and Martin? Or are you also thinking about those fun, stylish, and thoughtful FM deejays? Michael Kramer explored the “history of thought” in the Bay Area counterculture through FM deejays in his book, The Republic of Rock. In fact, he might have some thoughts and suggestions for you. – TL

    • I was thinking a bit more of FM radio (where Joyner and Martin are on most radio stations) but AM would be quite relevant as well.

      And speaking of Republic of Rock–I read that book a while back and found it fascinating! I didn’t mention it above, but now that I think about, I suppose I’m coming around to some of the issues Kramer referred to as well. I’d welcome any suggestions and ideas he’d have.

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